Safety concerns may boost NASA's budget
Some say tight resources have hurt agency's culture, affecting morale and rockets.
As the airliner turns west to make its final approach to Orlando International Airport, the massive 456-foot-tall vehicle-assembly building at the Kennedy Space Center swings into view in the distance - a glistening monument to humanity's quest to explore the heavens.
Take a closer look, however, and the picture changes. Rusty doors, malfunctioning transporters, and nets strung to prevent falling pieces of the ceiling from damaging the space shuttle tell another story - the challenge of ensuring that the money to pay for spaceflight keeps pace with the needs.
In the budget for fiscal 2004 that President Bush sent to Capitol Hill yesterday, he is asking lawmakers to boost spending for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration by 9 percent over last year, from $15.1 billion last year to $15.47 billion, after asking a $99 million increase the year before. The new budget's request could well grow as Congress weighs information coming in from the probes into last weekend's loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew emerge.
The proposed budget increase could well represent a useful step in redressing what some analysts have called a period of budgetary benign neglect by previous administrations - made more difficult by the space agency's inability to control mushrooming costs for the International Space Station.
Study after study by the agency's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) pointed to the group's growing concern that while NASA bent over backwards to ensure the safety of any given flight, tight budgets were forcing the agency to make decisions that compromised shuttle safety over the long run. Last April, the outgoing chairman of the ASAP told the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, "In all the years of my involvement, I have never been as concerned for space shuttle safety as I am right now.... One of the roots of my concern is that nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has been eroded too far."
The studies, including last month's look at NASA's operations by the General Accounting Office, highlight several concerns. The ASAP determined that NASA was giving insufficient attention to upgrades necessary to keep the shuttles launching safely over the 10 to 20 years it may take to replace them with a new generation of manned vehicles. At root: competition between expensive R&D programs and an expensive program to keep shuttles flying.
Over the years, NASA has begun, then pulled the plug on, several efforts to develop the next-generation launch system for humans. But "they've hit a lot of dead ends," says Ray Williamson, a professor at the George Washington University's Space Policy Center in Washington.
Scientific know-how is a growing worry, too. In scientific, engineering, and computer fields, according to the GAO, the number of employees over 60 outnumber those under 30 by 3 to 1. The implication: a loss of expertise as senior employees in these fields become eligible for retirement over the next four years.
At the Kennedy Space Center, key equipment needed to prepare and launch the shuttles was in sore need of repair. Many key components, such as the crawlers that inch the space shuttles to the launch pad, date back to the 1960s.
Yet the message, which seemed to go unheeded for years, appears to be hitting home under Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator. Late last year, the White House sent Congress an amendment to the 2003 budget asking for more money to extend the time for shuttle replacements, fund R&D on a new manned launcher, and provide the upgrades needed to keep the shuttles operating as safely as possible.
Part of the reason for movement on these issues may lie as much in personalities as in technical merits of the arguments for or against NASA's budget requests, according to Keith Cowling, who edits NASA Watch, a website that focuses on US space policy. He notes that Daniel Goldin, Mr. O'Keefe's predecessor, positioned himself as a public servant doing the president's - and by extension, the American peoples' - bidding in holding the line on budgets while juggling the interests of scientists, proponents of manned spaceflight, and NASA's aeronautics activities.
But, because of his ties to Vice President Dick Cheney and his experience at the Office of Management and Budget, "O'Keefe will call up and say 'I need more money,' and he will get it," Cowling says.
To be sure, money alone is no guarantor of safe space operations. And the constant stream of studies warning about broad safety issues often can sound like carping, Dr. Williamson notes.
"It's really a reflection of the fact that no one is entirely happy with the shuttle program as it is. Try as we might to protect against the loss of an orbiter, we just get it wrong sometimes."